by Naz Shah, Member of Parliament for Bradford West
I recently took a call from a 49-year-old female constituent who cried throughout most of the call.
A few weeks prior to this, her family had sought my support as they had been struggling to get her an Islamic divorce through a local sharia council in Bradford West.
I had only just literally days before taken part in a debate about sharia councils highlighting issues whilst also expressing the need for the services when people want them. From the evidence presented to me during the “sharia council” inquiry when I was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, it was clear that around 90% of the work of Sharia Councils is about divorces.
So, when I was presented with this case, I was not only alarmed but disgraced at what I was told. (I have changed the names of the individuals to protect their identity).
Here was a 49-year-old woman, Mrs Khan, seeking a divorce after 17 years of marriage. Mrs Khan went to the ‘sharia council’ and to begin with, everything was fine until her husband, a local businessman, “had words” so to speak, after which no one would touch this case.
Mrs Khan went from one place to the next, even out of town, but within West Yorkshire, once people found out who the man involved was, she was told they wouldn’t get involved due to him being from not only a particular ‘biradri’, but also because of who he was, they couldn’t go against him.
I then picked up the phone to individuals within the religious leadership space. After sharing my frustrations, I was reassured that they would refer her to the right people who could take care of this matter. I thought it would be resolved, until I received this phone call.
I was told how, Mrs Khan went to this individual (that was supposed to resolve the matter) who proceeded to chastise her for seeking my support, asked her why she married the individual involved in the first place, told her that yes he would give her the ‘khula’ (Islamic divorce), but ended with “if I find out you have lied to me I will revoke the khula”!
So, this chap clearly felt aggrieved that he was being held to account on religious grounds and was going to hold the strings for the rest of her life? So, if she were to marry another man and her ex-husband decided for example, he didn’t like it, he could literally make up a story and this chap could then revoke the khula!
When I again called the guy, who had been very helpful in trying to sort this out, he was equally disheartened. The stark realities prevalent in this case did not just outline the nature of male power, the abuse of women, the inequality faced by a victim, but more so the irony of some elements of the religious clergy to allow such un-Islamic practices to take place due to patriarchy.
So why am I writing this and sharing this with you? Because I have known this 49-year-old educated, strong, confident woman since I was a child. To hear her desperation in that call, not only infuriated me, it has highlighted that if this is happening to her then it must also be happening to others and it must stop.
This is about power and control. It is about the oppression of women. And it has no place in society.
For the women who are reading this who feel they might need any support please do read the following report about Islamic marriages as it is important to understand that a “nikah” is not recognised in British law as a marriage and if you choose to have a nikah/divorce you have rights and a level of service that you are rightful to demand of anybody who operates any sharia council provision.
I am pleased to say that Mrs Khan was granted her Khula through the efforts of individuals within Bradford West for which I am grateful for and I thank them.
But it shouldn’t take the involvement of the local MP and other people to grant a woman what is her god given right.
Since then, Mrs Khan has been further told that her now ex-husband will seek to have the Khula annulled on the grounds of mental instability! That can be dealt with very simply through the right channels and I will support Mrs Khan fully in doing so but this just demonstrates the length people will go to. Going through a divorce is difficult enough as it is, without having to deal with backward patriarchal attitudes of male ownership and power!
There is no Islamic justification for the any man to be afforded privileges by any Sharia Councils because he has power.
This cannot be allowed to happen again and whilst I will be reaching out to the local Sharia Councils to ensure I can support them to develop their practices, I warn those in positions of power, whether it be Sharia Councils or others, who choose to abuse it, should this practice continue then I will not hesitate to hold them to account publicly and name and shame those involved. If you provide a public service then you have a duty to provide a service of equality, fairness and justice and free of any abuse of power.